A mis­chievous laugh, un­be­liev­ably cool

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY BILL SHER­MAN

LISA JAR­DINE had a gift for mak­ing sense of other peo­ple’s lives. Some of those peo­ple were fa­mous fig­ures from the past (in­clud­ing Ba­con, Wren, Hooke and Eras­mus) but most were, like my­self, hum­ble stu­dents who were lucky enough to at­tend her lec­tures, and avid read­ers or lis­ten­ers who came to know her dis­tinc­tive voice on the page or over the air­waves.

My first mem­o­ries of Lisa are of a young lec­turer with a mis­chievous l augh and­bright­ly­dyed hair (the yel­low phase, I think, though poss ib l y th e first of the reds), who se e m e d both im­pos­si­bly learned and un­be­liev­ably cool.

I ha d be e n drawn to Lisa’s classes in Cam­bridge as a vis­it­ing un­der­grad­u­ate from Amer­ica in the mid1980s,and­whenIre­turned with a schol­ar­ship from Columbia to be­gin my post­grad­u­ate stud­ies, I was de­lighted to find that she had been as­signed as my su­per­vi­sor. Her rig­or­ous train­ing in tex­tual foren­sics and rhetor­i­cal skill opened up new — and old — worlds to me and have served me well in my own ca­reer as a comber of ar­chives, his­to­rian of read­ing and writer of lives.

But, like the oth­ers she would take un­der her wing, Lisa’s for­mal teach­ing was only the be­gin­ning of what and where we would learn from her. When she heard that I would be on my­own­forthewin­ter­hol­i­daysinmy first year, she took me in for the first of many fam­ily meals: as with the great Re­nais­sance men and women she stud­ied, Lisa’s fam­ily ex­tended to her an ever-grow­ing cir­cle of stu­dents and col­lab­o­ra­tors where the dis­tinc­tion be­tween sem­i­nar ta­ble and din­ner ta­ble was of­ten lost and where the lat­est box set by Bob Dy­lan was as likely to be hauled out as the multi-vol­ume edi­tion of Eras­mus’s Latin let­ters. Gen­er­ous with chicken soup and un­spar­ing with feed­back, Lisa be­came my sur­ro­gate Jewish mother.

Lisa in­her­ited a fa­mous fa­ther (Ja­cob Bronowski) and de­vel­oped a vast net­work in some of Bri­tain’s most pow­er­ful i nst i t ut i o ns (Cam­bridge, the BBC and the Houses of Par­lia­ment), but she had a deep em­pa­thy for out­siders of all kinds— rebels, mis­fits and mi­grants. She was the prod­uct of one of the 20th cen­tury’s great dis­place­ments, and felt the plight of our cur­rent wave of refugees acutely: the last thing she said to me was “what will we do to help the sit­u­a­tion in Syria?” She was com­mit­ted to the end to mak­ing Bri­tain a less strange place for strangers.

The past it­self is a for­eign coun­try, as L P Hart­ley ob­served, and Lisa also made the Re­nais­sance a place where we could feel at home. Hav­ing fol­lowed her fa­ther in mov­ing be­tween the sciences and the arts (switch­ing from math­e­mat­ics to lit­er­a­ture as an un­der­grad­u­ate), she clear­lyen­joyed­workingin a pe­riod be­fore the great di­vide be­tween C P Snow’s

But if her in­tel­lec­tual and lin­guis­t­i­cran­gere­called­thetrain­ing of the Re­nais­sance school­room, her pro­fes­sional ca­reer looked more and more like a re­vival of the pe­riod’s “civic hu­man­ism”, in which the gift of ed­u­ca­tion was to be re­paid through ac­tive work in the pub­lic sphere. She served as a gover­nor of schools, judge of lit­er­ary prizes, trustee at the V&A and Na­tional Ar­chives, pres­i­dent of the Bri­tish Sci­ence As­so­ci­a­tion and head of the Hu­man Fer­til­i­sa­tion and Em­bry­ol­ogy Author­ity.

She seemed to be liv­ing three dif­fer­ent lives si­mul­ta­ne­ously — aca­demic, broad­caster and pub­lic ser­vant — and they were sus­tained by a fourth life, that of wife and mother.

Iwill­n­everun­der­stand how one per­son could have so much en­ergy, such an in­ex­haustible drive to know, write and talk. Was there any sub­ject about which she did not have a pile of books on her groan­ing cof­fee ta­ble, any topic about which she did not have some­thing to say?

For some­one who spent so much timewrit­ing­bi­ogra­phiesof­schol­ars, sci­en­tists and states­men, Lisa’s own life is pe­cu­liarly dif­fi­cult to re­duce to a sin­gle cat­e­gory.

In­deed, cast­ing my eye over the shelves full of books she pro­duced, it seems as if most of the ti­tles ap­ply to heraswellas­totheiro­rig­i­nal­sub­jects. Like the Re­nais­sance pe­riod’s great princes, pa­trons and prin­ters, she gave us a new ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the Worldly Goods that pre­serve the past for us to­day.

Likethe­p­i­oneer­ing­sci­en­tistRobert Hooke, she turned na­ture’s puz­zles into In­ge­nious Pur­suits.

Like the ar­chi­tect of St Paul’s and re­builder of Lon­don, Christo­pher Wren, she worked On a Grander Scale. And like Fran­cis Ba­con she was ul­ti­mately a Hostage to For­tune — though one that was phys­i­cal rather than po­lit­i­cal.

Shep­acked­manylivesin­totheone she was given and has left a legacy that will live on through the lives of oth­ers.

Lisa had deep em­pa­thy for out­siders of all kinds — rebels and mis­fits

Bill Sher­man is Head of Re­search at the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum and Pro­fes­sor of Re­nais­sance Stud­ies at York Univer­sity

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